Eric V. Snow



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Resident Slaveholders Supervising Small Units of Production Smother Resistance
Another reason for the lack of collective resistance by Southern slaves against their masters and mistresses lay in the smothering effects of their small units of production and close, personal supervision by resident slaveholders, as Kolchin has observed. The practical effects of paternalism, although that ideology likely was not accepted by the bulk of masters or slaves in actuality, still bore useful fruits from the white regime's viewpoint due to the resident nature of the master class and their ability to routinely interfere in the lives of their human chattels. Simply put, the larger the size of the unit of production and the farther away the owner lives away from it, the harder it is for him to survey, control, and punish those under him, regardless of the slave code's legalities about the will of the bondsman being made one with the master's. The amount of "practical," de facto freedom of the subordinates increases correspondingly with the lessening of the master's power. To manage most American plantations, no large, complicated administrative apparatus of managers supervising other managers intervening between the owner and the average slave was necessary--if the master did not personally supervise his slaves at work, normally all he needed was one overseer to manage them. By knowing not just his domestic servants, but many or all his field hands personally, especially in those cases of large hereditary slaveowners in long settled areas, he could interfere in their family and off-work, "private" lives much more than was the case for those generally absentee Caribbean planters who often ruled over much larger bodies of slaves. Furthermore, he often strived to make his bondsmen as economically dependent on him as possible, by providing food and clothing directly to his bondsmen, sometimes even having food cooked communally. For American slaves, outside of task system areas, the patches of land they cultivated were normally supplements to income at best, when their owners did not forbid them altogether. The slaves of the Caribbean were much more likely to raise all their own food themselves on plots of land assigned to them, so their masters could escape the hassles of providing food for such large numbers of bondsmen. All the close personal attention American slaves received, regardless of how much actual paternalism was being practiced through it, helped to prevent the development of autonomous collective organizations among them. Their "practical freedom" was much less than that of typical Russian serfs or Caribbean bondsmen, who had much more economic independence and freedom of action. A lack of experience with independent action had deadening effects on collective resistance, as shown by the different responses of those born enslaved and those who survived the Middle Passage. Creoles were particularly apt to engage in individualistic modes of protest, such as by running away alone, while the Africans held in slavery in eighteenth-century Virginia, used to much more collaborative effort before being enslaved by the whites, were more apt to engage in collective protests by running off in groups and establishing maroon colonies on the frontier. The effects of slavery on the bondsmen in the United States, under the tight, personal supervision of their owners on relatively small units of production, who sought to make them almost exclusively economically dependent on the standard rations, which heavily undermined the autonomy of their culture, turned their slaves towards individualistic modes of protest whose covert yet defiant nature was not especially clear to their owners by deliberate intention. While the resident nature of the masters and mistresses in America benefited the bondsmen by raising the standard of living and lowering the brutalities of the system through restraining overseers (i.e., paid management), it increased the social costs of bondage to the bondsmen by allowing their owners to interfere much more in their personal and family lives and limiting the development of an autonomous culture and ethos of collective protest, especially with the closure of the African slave trade and the high natural rate of population growth among the creole slaves. As Kolchin noted, benign neglect might have benefited the slaves much more than a paternalism that caused the masters to continuously meddle in their bondsmen's lives, in which they were treated as permanent children requiring constant protection, direction, correction, and punishment.628
Resisting Enslavement Is Not the Same as Resisting Slavery as a Social System
With day-to-day resistance looming so large in the lives of American slaves and the historiography of the subject, this leads us to a major objection against its significance. Since free workers in contemporary society also engage in shirking, vandalism, lies to evade work, theft from the work place, etc., how do we know whether when slaves engaged in the same behaviors they were really resisting slavery as a social system? Kolchin uses the example of absenteeism doubling among American autoworkers between 1965 and 1972. Was this proof of them increasingly resisting capitalism, disliking the specific policies of the auto companies, or just alienation from boring, repetitive jobs?629 It is difficult peering into the minds of subject classes in the past because we lack general access to their minds and the hidden transcript they produced, as discussed above (pp. 246-47). While the masses can prove they are ideological and political through collective, open efforts to resist the dominant class, i.e., that they are "class conscious," such collective efforts were rare among American bondsmen. Citing the thoughts of the unusually resourceful, oppressed, and/or lucky slaves who escaped into freedom and lived to write or tell their own stories in narratives is problematic because these men and women were plainly extraordinary, and from their contact with northern abolitionists, whose ideology may have helped form the framework of their analysis of slavery as a social system, even when they did not serve as editors or transcribers for the narratives they published. One is largely left with rather cryptic, covert activities such as stealing and lying, which are correspondingly hard to interpret politically, even as they are plainly troublesome to the dominant class. It makes more sense to see the bondsmen, especially those who were illiterate and profoundly ignorant of the rest of the world outside of what they had personally experienced, as resisting not slavery as a social system, but their enslavement personally, as Paquette has suggested. Conceiving of freedom from one's one harsh master, and seek the redress of particular, concrete grievances is one thing. But it takes a wide leap conceptually for an uneducated, illiterate mind think in universals, and see the whole system throughout the South as needing to be overturned. Since concept of "freedom," as in the absence of physical coercion from others, is a Western concept, unknown to almost all non-Western people prior to contact with Eurocentric cultures, the development of an ideology of freedom that did not involve social control and connectedness to family, kin, and friends (the African antonym for "slavery") was hardly an automatic development natural to the human mind. With the enormous power of the white regime in America necessarily preventing most open, organized, collective struggles that could be easily labeled "political," the creole slaves themselves inclined towards individualistic modes of protest, and much of the subordinate class' infrapolitics being equivocal to interpretation, even by design of the perpetrators, it becomes quite difficult to prove American slaves were as class conscious as the farmworkers who joined Arch's union in the 1870s. Furthermore, many types of day-to-day resistance can serve at least inadvertently as props for the overall system. For example, maroonage unintentionally served as a safety valve propping up the planters' rule in Antigua. As this valve closed because most of its available land fell under cultivation, pressures building under forced accommodation helped create a great conspiracy in 1736.630
Normally infrapolitics should seen as a desire to gain concrete, particular advantages against specific masters (i.e., filling a half-empty belly with stolen food) than as politically-motivated acts supported by a well thought out ideology, unless the hidden transcript hints at something greater, due to the difficulties of illiterate, uneducated minds being able to conceive of and think about universal concepts. The concept of "resistance" should not be trivialized through extending the concept of infrapolitics into the daily activities all people, free or slave, engage in in order to live.631 While no doubt slaves as a whole were conscious of getting the shaft from their superiors to one extent or another, they never reached the level of autonomous self-organization and collective effort of being a class acting for itself, clearly conceptualizing their position as a group relative to their masters'. Nevertheless, it should always be remembered in reply to Elkins, Genovese, and Fogel and Engerman, that the lack of collective effort by American bondsmen was much more a function of white power and restrictions on the bondsmen's education and practical freedom of action, especially through being resident masters on small units of production, than anything intrinsic to the personality of "Sambo" himself or to the successful indoctrination of him with the ideology of paternalism or the Protestant work ethic.
Hodge: The Predominance of Daily Infrapolitics over Outright Riots
Having discussed much of the general theory of resistance by a subordinate class against a dominant class when dealing with African-American slaves above (note especially pp. 325-329), this section dealing with English agricultural workers is more brief. The role of day-to-day resistance through various crimes is paramount here as well, since major riots in the English countryside were not especially common, even considering those over the price of food in periods of high prices. The research of Dale Edward Williams found that most market towns experienced no more than one food riot in the course of a century.632 And while the Swing riots of 1830-31 and the earlier "Bread or Blood" riots of East Anglia were fairly spectacular, the former being far more extensive than any slave revolt in the United States, such events were hardly frequent. After the ultimate failure and repression following "Swing," the countryside was not marked by major, organized protests by the laborers again until the 1860s-1870s farmworkers' unions. Chartism was something that mostly bypassed the farmworkers, being primarily an urban phenomenon dominated by artisans and factory workers, with the miners playing an important supplementary role. The English countryside Somerville toured was full of dissatisfied laborers and general unrest which had its effects on the rural elite, but no major organized collective protests. English laborers mainly resisted through infrapolitics, since for any subordinate class, direct frontal assaults are dangerous and risky. But the laborers could engage in more open opposition compared to slaves in the South, because they had far more legal rights and were regarded fundamentally as part of the society they lived in, not outside of it, which lay the foundations for the unions' successes in the 1870s.
Social Crime--The Infrapolitics of Poaching
The laborers principally struggled against their masters through committing what the latter regarded crimes, but not the laborers themselves. The most important of these was poaching, in contrast to the supremacy of theft among American slaves, although that crime was hardly unknown among the laborers either. The game laws were a constant source of class friction, because they outlawed any hunting by anyone the landowners did not specifically give permission to, even when the animals wandered away from their preserves. The law gave the landlords permanent property in wild animals, allowing them to punish those who killed "their" game. The old feudal right of chase was operative up into 1834. Landowners possessing it could hunt even on others' land as well. Since the farmers normally leased their land, they also were negatively affected by the game laws. Tenant farmers could not legally kill any animals feeding off the crops of the land they cultivated unless they received their landlord's permission first, which he was often loathe to grant. Routinely they were not compensated by their lord--the Earl of Abingdon in Oxford being an exception--by having their rents reduced in compensation. The game laws mainly oppressed the laborers by denying them a way to get food, especially meat, as would have existed had they lived in the United States even as black slaves. Some suffered like the farmers because their allotments were damaged or ruined from game eating crops raised upon them, a problem Somerville once encountered in Sussex. Further petty tyrannies were inflicted by restrictions placed on where laborers could walk freely without being questioned by the police or gamekeepers. Gathering wood in forests was banned for a similar reason. When a laborer was convicted of poaching, he was apt to be blacklisted by the local rural elite, and denied a job after even one conviction, as Arch noted: "The man is looked on as a poaching vagabond by all the employing class round about. . . . I have gone with them from one end of the village to the other, farmer after farmer, but nobody would give them a job."633 The laborers, when members of poaching gangs, routinely got into virtual pitched battles with the local squires' or lord's gamekeepers, some on either side being wounded, arrested, even sometimes killed, as Somerville and Hudson both described. Ironically, these gangs were the consequence of the heavy penalties meted out to violators of the 1770 and (especially) 1800 and 1803 laws. Poachers gathered into large groups because gamekeepers did not like trying to stop them then, and they became more likely to fight than allow themselves to be captured, because the penalties were so harsh against poaching.634
The Laborers' Counter-Ideology Against the Elite's Game Laws
The farmworkers rejected the upper class values that underlay the game laws. They maintained they could kill wild animals and birds because they were not owned by anyone in particular, especially when they had run off their lord's preserves and lands. In reply to the 1816 Act that inflicted transportation for seven years upon those who carried a net for poaching into a forest or park, a manifesto was published in a Bath newspaper by some evident poachers: "The Lord of all men sent these animals for the peasants as well as for the prince." Arch felt the laborer who killed the incidental rabbit or hare that crossed his path was not in the wrong, whether it was because he was half-starving, had merely inadequate wages, just liked the taste of its meat, or was trying to get compensation for it eating breakfast on his allotment:
The plain truth is, we labourers do not believe hares and rabbits belong to any individual, not any more than thrushes and blackbirds do. . . . Has the hare or the rabbit a brand on him for purposes of identification? If I found a stray loaf on the road it would be mine, and so with a rabbit or hare.635
But there were limits on the moral permissibility of poaching for at least some laborers. Both Arch and shepherd Bawcombe drew an implied distinction between those who incidently poached while having a regular job, and those without regular jobs, (in Bawcombe's version) the beer house idlers who were members of poaching gangs.636
Poaching became undoubtedly the most common crime that the laborers committed against their superiors as a part of day-to-day resistance. Since they generally did not live on their employers' property at night, especially as service declined in the nineteenth century, it was considerably harder for them to steal from the farmers' or squire's stocks and larders than for the slaves from their masters. English jails and prisons were full of laborers convicted for poaching offenses, with some getting hanged. Cobbett in 1823 maintained one-third of those in English jails were there for violations of the game laws, which required them to be enlarged, and that their number exceeded all those in prison for any reason in France. Cobbett did exaggerate, though not by too much--between 1827 and 1830, one-seventh of all criminal convictions were under the game laws, for a total of 8502 offenses. In Bedford jail in the January of 1829, of the ninety-six prisoners yet to be tried, eighteen were poachers who had used arms against gamekeepers. Consider this indication of how common this offense was. Isaac Bawcombe was rewarded of a pension due to the influence of one elderly gentleman. This man routinely found excellent hunting on the one spot of hilly land where Bawcombe's flock regularly fed, which was the only explanation his gamekeeper had for his unusual success there as opposed to other hilly areas on his lands. Bawcombe had been the exception to the rule, for not only did he not poach himself, but tried to stop others from doing so. This gentleman hunter's relative lack of success elsewhere pointed to how common poaching was even on his own land, without him even really knowing it!637
The Role of Theft, More Generally Defined, in English Rural Infrapolitics
While the upper class also regarded killing wild animals as stealing their property, we need to consider theft by laborers more broadly. No doubt the limits of what was considered to be "fair game" for the laborers to "take" from their employers were much narrower than those the slaves accepted. Arch maintained while he would work with someone who poached a rabbit, he would not with someone who had taken a chicken: "But let a man who had stolen a hen off a roost be ever such a good workman, I should have nothing to do with him; I should keep clear of him and avoid his company . . . If I saw any man steal six-pennyworth from an employer of mine, I should at once report the man."638 Still, the English rural elite battled against farmworkers stealing their property. One reason initially given for opposing allotments was that the laborers would use the cover given by growing their own crops to help conceal what was stolen from their employers. Jeffries, examining archetypes among the laborers from a middle class perspective, described one as the boy who starts by pilfering from his employer, cumulating with a stolen whip, and finally gets thrashed by the carter as punishment. His stereotype ignores the real reason why many laborers stole from their employers or others, especially in times of dearth and/or relatively low wages--hunger. Some old people witnessed to Hudson, including one lady of ninety-four years, that sheep stealing was a common crime, despite the draconian penalties threatened: "The men were strangely indifferent and did not seem to care whether they were hanged or not." She pointed out some grandchildren of a man hanged for sheep stealing at Salisbury. Arch remembered when he was around nine years old in 1835 how desperate so many of the laborers were. Many stole turnips, potatoes, and other produce they could get their hands on, and it was no exaggeration to say every other man was a poacher in his parish. Much like Kemble on slaves stealing food to live, Arch reluctantly felt such behavior acceptable, although he believed the laws of the land should be obeyed as much as possible: "How can I blame these men because they would not sit still, and let the life be starved out of them and theirs? They would not; so they risked their liberty, the next dearest thing they had . . . in their endeavours to obtain food." Somerville noted in questionnaires returned to the Anti-corn Law League from English areas that when work was plentiful, crimes were rare, but when work was scare, poaching and sheep-stealing were common.639
The Correlation Between Poverty and Theft
Turning to evidence more quantitative in nature, statistical series exist which, based on the numbers of indictments in various years, appear to indicate a strong correlation between dearth and numbers of thefts committed in peacetime. This relationship breaks down during wars, evidently because the army would absorb large numbers of young men apt to commit crime, especially when many magistrates would offer offenders the opportunity to avoid prosecution if they would join the army. Although Innes and Styles are rather skeptical of the correlation between crime and poverty due to how prosecutors could change their behavior over time in those they try to convict, they acknowledged King's series on Essex even had a wartime correlation between its bad years (1740-41, 1772, 1800-01) and increased crime. While, as always, correlation cannot prove causation, literary evidence, such as that of Hudson and Arch above, illuminates plausibly the interrelationships involved, so it is not mere guesswork to see bad years with high prices leading to increased petty thefts by the laboring poor. When the number of poachers committed to the Gaol of Bury St. Edmunds goes from five, four, and two in the years 1810-12 to seventy-five, sixty, sixty-one, and seventy-one in 1822-25, demobilization and local labor markets flooded by ex-soldiers and sailors seeking work were not the only reasons why. These had largely been adjusted to in the 1815-20 period right after the French Wars ended, so we should look for other causes. Orridge, the governor of this jail, maintained most of the poachers committed their acts out of distress, not the love of sport.640 Even when such statistics are treated with some care they still point to the truth of the viewpoint of Arch and Hudson's informants: Poaching and stealing increased at times when the poor were worse off.641
Hodge's Thinner Mask
Like Sambo, Hodge wore a mask as well in order to conceal his thoughts from his superiors, but his mask never needed to be as thick. Because the costs of insubordination proportionately were not as high (i.e., no corporal punishment for adult farm workers, no sales splitting families), and because he underwent less routine surveillance by his superiors, unless he was a live-in farm servant, Hodge had more freedom to maneuver. Hodge also had more legal rights, although exercising them was potentially hazardous or easily blocked unless he knew the law well. Nevertheless, farmworkers still learned to hold their tongues. Arch noted many laborers in the presence of their superiors in formal social settings of the latter's choosing were intimidated, and simply lacked social ease to talk freely even if no penalty was involved in saying what they thought, which caused them to be seen as stupid or slow. But the more articulate laborers did not speak out either because they "had learned the trade of mouth-shutting and teeth-locking as soon as they could talk, and before they knew what bird-scaring was. A man with the weight of many masters on him learns how to be dumb, and deaf, and blind, at a very early hour in the morning."642 Both of these factors, of social intimidation and the willing concealment of thoughts, led to the development of the classic stereotype of Hodge as a slow-moving, slow-thinking brute who spoke few words. In interviews, one journalist for the Morning Chronicle complained in 1849 that the farmworker typically looked upon the (better educated social superior) suspiciously, feeling oppressed as long as the interview lasted, acting timid and withdrawn. Holdenby saw laborers putting up a "mysterious barrier of 'Ay, ay', 'may be', 'likely enough', with which the labourer hedges himself in." These all are signs of the mask going up, and so his social superiors did not see the "real Hodge" as much as they may have thought. So they then thought him stupider and less articulate than he was in fact, although the more insightful saw he was concealing much from them.643 The attitudes of the laborers' employers, who saw them as useless outside their ability to work, helped create this mask, as Arch noted: "Work was all they wanted from him; he was to work and hold his tongue, year in and year out, early and late."644
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